The Eagles made their most important signing of the offseason on Wednesday when they reached a deal to retain linebacker Nigel Bradham six hours before free agency opened.
Bradham, who was one of the best players on the Eagles’ defense in 2017, remained a priority signing for the team this offseason. He agreed to a five-year contract worth up to $40 million, according to a league source.
The Eagles, however, could not re-sign slot cornerback Patrick Robinson, who agreed to a four-year deal worth $20 million with the New Orleans Saints, according to multiple reports. Defensive tackle Beau Allen also landed a deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
After the league year started at 4 p.m., the Eagles officially announced three transactions that already have been reported: the acquisition of defensive end Michael Bennett and a 2018 seventh-round pick from the Seattle Seahawks for wide receiver Marcus Johnson and a 2018 fifth-round pick; the trade of wide receiver Torrey Smith to the Carolina Panthers for cornerback Daryl Worley; and the signing of former Denver Broncos linebacker Corey Nelson to a one-year contract. The Eagles have not yet announced the expected addition of veteran defensive tackle Haloti Ngata.
There are more moves remaining in the coming days and weeks, but it was a major boon that the Eagles could navigate their tight salary-cap space to re-sign Bradham and prevent the linebacker position from becoming a hole. Bradham, 28, has been the Eagles’ most durable linebacker since arriving as a free agent from Buffalo in 2016 and was a tone-setter for Jim Schwartz’s defense. He played all but one game in the past two seasons and has 190 total tackles and three sacks. When Jordan Hicks was lost for the season in October, Bradham became the defensive signal-caller and took over Hicks’ spot on passing downs. Schwartz called Bradham’s defensive communication one of the “unsung stories of this season.”
“Nigel plays with tremendous energy and fire and has made a number of impact plays for us at the linebacker position,” the Eagles said in a statement. “Keeping him here was a priority of ours and we are looking forward to his future here in Philadelphia.”
Bradham’s Eagles career started with turbulence when he was twice arrested in 2016, although one of the charges was pleaded down to a deferred prosecution program and another charge was dropped. The Eagles stood by Bradham, who has developed into one of the team’s leaders and has since avoided off-field trouble.
With Bradham staying in Philadelphia, the Eagles return almost every starter from last season. However, Mychal Kendricks could be a trade candidate. The Eagles usually play with only two linebackers on the field, and if Hicks is healthy, the pair will likely be Bradham and Hicks. Kendricks, who requested a trade last offseason, has been honest about his desire for steady playing time. He will count $7.6 million against the salary cap, which would be a burdensome price for a part-time player. The addition of Nelson in free agency gives the Eagles another option for the third linebacker spot.
The reason the Eagles usually play with two linebackers is because of how often they’re in the nickel defense, which is why Robinson’s role was so important for the Eagles. Robinson signed a one-year deal with the Eagles last offseason as a potential placeholder and turned into a key player in the slot who came up with a game-changing interception return for a touchdown in the NFC championship game. His presence also allowed Schwartz to use safety Malcolm Jenkins differently than in the previous two seasons, when Jenkins needed to play the slot.
The Eagles are deeper at cornerback than they’ve been in recent years. Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby return as starters, with Sidney Jones expected to emerge as a key player and Rasul Douglas and Worley also promising options. All the cornerbacks are age 24 and under, giving the Eagles a desirable young core on the depth chart. They need to find one who can take over for Robinson in the slot. That might be Mills, who had experience in that role at LSU.
Once Ngata’s deal becomes official, the Eagles will have their replacement for Allen as the third defensive tackle. The Eagles still need to address depth at tight end and wide receiver and they’ll continue searching for special-teams upgrades. It’s only the first day of free agency, and some of the Eagles’ most notable moves last season occurred well after the initial wave subsided. But the most important move they could have made was retaining Bradham, and they accomplished it on Wednesday.